Somsook Boonyabancha
ThailandCommunity Development Institution
Fellow since 1991

Somsook Boonyabancha, an architect for the public, has found a way to end the universally harmful stalemate between poor slum squatters and owners/developers that characterizes so many southern hemisphere cities.

#Urban decay#Adverse possession#Urban planning#Land use#Slum#Negotiation#Squatting#Poverty

The Person

Somsook was born to a large (12 children), close family of modest means. For much of her childhood she lived near a slum, an early sensitizing influence. Her talent and energy were quickly apparent. She was heavily involved in a host of school activities, ranging from sports and the science club to editing a newsletter. In her early year at Chulalongkorn University she created a regular weekend program, staffer by her fellow university students, to help high school students prepare for the rigorous university entrance examinations. After graduating from the University in 1975, she worked for the government in an office devoted to slum-upgrading. After further studies in 1979 in Denmark, she worked in the Center for Housing and Human Settlements, all the while experimenting with her ideas at the grassroots level. By the end of the 1980s, her apprenticeship complete, Somsook stepped out with her organizations, able and committed to opening -- systemically -- the way for a better housing/land use deal for the society.

The New Idea

Somsook is developing the methodology for "land-sharing", an urban land use innovation built around a mutually beneficial deal between urban squatters and the owner of the land who wishes to develop for commercial purposes. The slum dwellers get new, better, if more dense housing on a back portion of the plot in dispute, and the owner gets the street-front portion freed for immediate development. Everyone wins. The slum dwellers get more than quality housing at agreed affordable cost and they become legal and secure. They also emerge, in Somsook's way of orchestrating such deals, organized and able not only to negotiate but to go on and deal with other problems. The owners and developers rescue most of the value of their investment opportunity, which otherwise very probably would remain mired in a limitless quicksand of politicized conflict. Such conflict produces only costs and is painfully un-Thai. Somsook's win-win land-sharing deals also helps the cities: ending the stalemate which has been immobilizing important properties facilitates more rational, efficient urban development. In 1988 Somsook moved to bring her ideas and values to bear beyond Thailand; she, together with a number of NGOs in Asia, founded the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. She served as its first Secretary, but now hopes to shift to a title-less but more flexible role. Through the Coalition she has brought together the groups, working for better housing conditions all across Asia, and she provided the leadership that has helped them put an informed international spotlight on important or disturbing problems (e.g., evictions in Korea or older workers in Hong Kong reduced to living in long rows of tiny cages stacked three high, to develop new understanding, to provide training, and to support initiatives in the fields members wish to lead. For example, the Coalition is now beginning to investigate rural as well as urban evictions and is helping Vietnam learn quite unfamiliar decentralized approaches to managing its housing.

The Problem

Over the last several decades millions upon millions of poor Asian, African, and Latin American families have crowded into the burgeoning cities, squatting on the only urban land practically available, open space belonging to others, be they private or public. However inexorable, and however politically irreversible these land seizures usually prove to be, they are illegal and lead to endless conflict, uncertainty, and harm everyone's interests. The squatters invest most of their savings and endless weekends of labor building their own homes. Shacks gradually acquire cinder block walls and expand. However, since they don't have title to the land, their investment is constantly at risk. It certainly cannot be used as security for the non-usurious loans that might start a business or manage a family emergency affordably. For the same reason basic municipal services come slowly and uncertainly if at all, starting with orderly planning of streets through provision of utilities and garbage service. This sort of impermanence, of growing uncertainty, gives the squatters a sense of rootlessness, which in turn subtly undercuts their ability to build strong family and community cohesion. If these families are in fact ultimately evicted, everything they have built up -- human as much as physical structures -- will be swept away in an afternoon. Nor does eviction help the developers more than momentarily. The dispossessed, even those given (typically token) compensation more or less inevitably soon wash up on another vulnerable property. When they do come to rest elsewhere, usually these refugees have lost their neighbors and their local institutions, an easy access to their work, their homes and most of their savings, and some of their fight. And yet, something must be done, especially in the most valuable areas. Even the government, beset by high debt and able virtually to feel the opportunity value of the squatter lands it owns as land values sky rocket, is beginning to seek a humane way out.

The Strategy

Somsook's first priority has been to develop a practical way land-sharing can be made to work. Only once ordinary squatter communities, officials, and developers can make land-sharing work, is it sensible for her to focus on spreading it. Although the basic idea of the land-sharing deal is simple, making it work is not. Two of the most complex undertakings in modern society are community organizing and property development. Crossing the two, especially across the deep chasms that separate urban squatters from those focused on shopping malls and office skyscrapers, multiplies the challenge. Somsook has devoted much of the last decade to working her way to a simple, proven approach others could follow. Although each land-sharing process and deal is to some degree unique, reflecting the specific human, physical, and economic realities of each site, successful approaches virtually have to begin by helping the squatters actively to organize to articulate and press for their interests, beginning with the right to stay on at least some of the land. Only when there is such an organized group are negotiations with the landlord/developer realistic. Once negotiations begin, Somsook's experience points to successful patterns of negotiating and to terms that are likely to work and others that invite trouble. One critical term is a realistic level of rents in the new, relatively formal housing that the former squatters can afford. One way of holding rents down once the new apartments are built is to have the squatters contribute labor and perhaps materials during the construction. In the most successful resettlements, the slum leaders participate with the developer and landowner throughout the planning and relocation process. Sometimes outside resources can be enticed in to sweeten the deal: especially on public lands, for example the National Housing Authority has sometimes been willing to invest, thus helping both the squatters and a sister agency. Somsook is working to make her model visible and credible. She writes and uses the press ably. Even more important, she has succeeded in negotiating land-sharing projects in some highly visible sites in Bangkok, including one owned by the King.